Zimbabwe and The Limits of “Something Must Be Done”

Over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies has an interesting post on responses to the crisis in Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s descent into greater thuggery.

Amnesty International certainly thinks that Thabo Mbeki and his government could be more unequivocal in condemning the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe; there is a case that could be made for actual economic sanctions of the “individually targeted” kind – cutting Mugabe off from international travel, luxury goods imports and so on. However I do think that people need to remember that however bad things are in Zimbabwe, a civil war will mean that they get much, much worse, and that it is not surprising that the South African government see this possibility a lot more vividly than anyone else does[1], since not only will they be seeing the worst of the refugee problem, they already have strong indications[2] that a Zimbabwean civil war could spill over into their country.

However, whatever South Africa does is only going to have a marginal effect, and it is really unfair to pretend that they have a magic wand that they could wave to get rid of Mugabe painlessly, and they are only failing to wave it out of misplaced loyalty for Mugabe’s support to the ANC back in the apartheid era. This kind of magical thinking is one of the defining characteristics of the Decent Left – from Iraq to Darfur to Afghanistan, their version of “internationalism” is always predicated on a totally unrealistic view of what it is possible to achieve by foreign intervention, diplomatic or otherwise. (Alex de Waal, in a LRB article linked in the AW comments, sets out exactly how complicated, difficult and prone to failure the whole process really is). I’ve argued before that it just isn’t on to demand that “something must be done” without saying specifically what, and I think a lot of people are doing exactly this in the case of Zimbabwe – either that or they’ve forgotten just how horrific an African civil war can be.